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I'm working on my bachelor's thesis to get my bachelor's degree at a German university. I am not sure about the situation in other countries, but German universities are very sensitive when it comes to gender-neutral language. Some professors mark it as a mistake if you use gender-specific terms instead of gender-neutral ones. For example, instead of Studenten (students) you are expected to write Studentinnen und Studenten (i.e. naming both female and male students specifically) or Studierende (the participle form of studieren (studying)).

While I don't want to be sexist, most variants of gender-neutral language in German are (in my opinion) verbose, disturb the text flow and make the text harder to read. This is why I want to put a disclaimer in the introduction of my thesis stating that I will not use gender-neutral language for the reasons mentioned above.

Here's what I want to put in that disclaimer:

  • Throughout the thesis, gender-specific terms may be used in order to ease the text flow.
  • Whenever a gender-specific term is used, it should be understood as referring to both genders, unless explicitly stated.
  • This is done solely for the purpose of making the text easier to read, and no offense or sexism is intended.

Is such a disclaimer generally acceptable in a bachelor's thesis (or any scientific text)? If so, are the three points stated above both adequate and thorough to state my intention, or what should I add/remove? If not, how can I go about not using gender-neutral language without having it possibly be regarded as sexism or influence my grade?

If you can give any examples of a disclaimer like that (either in German or in English), it would be helpful as well (but not required for a satisfactory answer). Thanks!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 10 at 15:59
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I am going to respond to various parts of your question step by step.

For those unfamiliar with German, I am going to add a brief description of the gender-neutrality issue at the end of this answer, because things are quite a bit more complex in German than in English.

German universities are very sensitive when it comes to gender-neutral language. Some professors mark it as a mistake if you use gender-specific terms instead of gender-neutral ones.

I am not convinced that statement is true for German universities in general, especially as there still is no single true agreed-upon consensus on what is a good way to navigate around the issues. Much rather than that, I can imagine that certain professors make it a point to enforce gender-neutral language (just like I could imagine some other professors to make it a point to enforce what they perceive as stylistically and grammatically correct language, even though it is in turn not considered gender-neutral by all).

While I don't want to be sexist, most variants of gender-neutral language in German are (in my opinion) verbose, disturb the text flow and make the text harder to read.

While in your Bachelor thesis, your stance on this issue carries little weight, this is by far not a rare opinion, and exactly one of the reasons why some people (including professors, see my paragraph above) vehemently oppose some variants of gender-neutral language.

This is why I want to put a disclaimer in the introduction of my thesis stating that I will not use gender-neutral language for the reasons mentioned above.

In my opinion, a disclaimer is a good idea, as it kind-of puts you on the safe side by making your intentions explicit. In fact, I would see the following benefits:

  • It gives you some freedom to pick the style you'd like to write in.
  • It might satisfy even some of the readers who would personally have chosen a different writing style.
  • The mere existence of the disclaimer shows you care about the document as a whole, not only the specific technical aspects of your Bachelor project.
  • It defines something that will be used later. In technical subjects, or at least subjects that are somewhat related to maths, choosing definitions in a convenient way, explaining them first, and then using them accordingly throughout the document, is a good practice.

Now, there is no guarantee these points will be picked up positively, but at least, there is some chances for it.

This notwithstanding, you should ask your advisor for their preferred style, if any, or check past theses (successfully) written for the same advisor.

Is such a disclaimer generally acceptable in a bachelor's thesis (or any scientific text)?

As meanwhile shown by the other answer, yes. In fact, most things that clarify the contents are acceptable in Bachelor, Master, and Doctoral theses.

If so, are the three points stated above both adequate and thorough to state my intention, or what should I add/remove?

The three points sound fine. I would indeed advise against expressing you are "not using gender-neutral language". You could try and focus on stating that some terms "can be understood in a gender-specific way".


Remarks on issues with gender-neutral German

At least according to my impression, gender-neutral language is a much more controversial topic in German than in English (for some further illustration of this, also have a look at a related question on German SE):

In English, a large part of gender-neutral language is replacing exclusive uses of he or his. In German, in contrast, gender-neutral language primarily tackles any noun describing a person, because these usually come in a male and a female form, the latter of which is usually formed by adding the suffix -in to the male form.

This opens up two issues that make the topic so controversial in German:

  • On the one hand, there is no general agreement that the male form is, in fact, not gender-neutral. It has commonly been (and still is) used when both genders were meant, and (as noted below) there often is no synonymous noun that is gender-neutral.
  • On the other hand, there is no commonly agreed-upon solution for how to express things in an explicitly gender-neutral way:
    • For a start, truly gender-neutral nouns for persons are really rare in German. Replacements such as the English steward/stewardess -> flight attendant do not produce gender-neutral terms in German. (Curiously, the terms are sometimes copied from English nonetheless, so Germans have replaced Stewards und Stewardessen with Flugbegleiter und Flugbegleiterinnen.)
    • Offering both alternatives every time a person is mentioned can make a text hard to read (imagine a text about actors and actresses, or actors/-resses, or actorsResses, and imagine that split happening for every single noun referring to a person). Hence, this variant is opposed by some native speakers.
    • There is also the suggestion of using the neutral gender for all gender-neutral nouns. (In English, this would be akin to generally referring to persons whose gender is not specified as it.) While this sounds logical, it can also be perceived as disrespectful, as (unless the person noun specifically calls for neutral gender) using neutral gender on a person is like treating the person like a "thing".
    • Another approach is, as mentioned in the question, using a grammatical form that is (for many words) not normally used as a noun, but that does not change by gender, and that arguably has the same meaning as the role name - the present participle. If we transfer this back to English, a sentence such as "Participants pay attention to the instructor before their conversation with the student." becomes "Participatings pay attention to the instructing before their conversation with the studying." This is opposed by some native speakers as featuring abysmal style and bordering on being ungrammatical.

Therefore, a disclaimer expressing the author's intentions can be seen as preferable compared to any of the "gender-neutral" variants, all of which are controversial and cumbersome in some way.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal May 10 at 15:59
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Reasons against a disclaimer

If not, how can I go about not using gender-neutral language without having it possibly be regarded as sexism or influence my grade?

In my opinion, a disclaimer is not going to help you here.

Either the people reading your thesis are already fine with the generic masculinum - in which case you don't need a disclaimer - or they are not.

If they are not fine with it, your disclaimer is not going to convince them that it is fine to use the generic masculinum. People who are against it already know your arguments for it, and have dismissed them. Without a disclaimer, they will not assume that when you for example speak of doctors, that you actually mean that only men can be doctors. But with a disclaimer, they may think that you thought about the problem, but came to the conclusion that you will not make an effort to not exclude women in your writing.

Either way, a disclaimer just seems like rubbing it in: "I know you would prefer it differently, but I'm not going to do that".

Improvements of your disclaimer

Your first and third point are essentially the same. The third only adds that no offense is intended, which isn't really helpful, so you might as well combine your points:

Throughout the thesis, gender-specific terms may be used in order to ease the text flow. Whenever a gender-specific term is used, it should be understood as referring to both genders, unless explicitly stated.

I'd also be interested in how the explicit stating would work in practice ("männliche Ärzte"?), but that would be a different question.

Examples of disclaimers

If you do plan on using a disclaimer, I would just put it in a footnote, no need to draw too much attention to it. An example:

Es sind stets Personen männlichen und weiblichen Geschlechts gleichermaßen gemeint; aus Gründen der einfacheren Lesbarkeit wird im Folgenden nur die männliche Form verwendet source

Here is another example, it's placed after the content overview:

Aus Gründen der besseren Lesbarkeit wird auf die gleichzeitige Verwendung männlicher und weiblicher Sprachformen verzichtet. Sämtliche Personenbezeichnungen gelten gleichwohl für beiderlei Geschlecht. source

Your arguments for the generic masculinum

In case you are not aware of this, there have been studies regarding the readability of text without the generic masculinum, and it doesn't seem to have a negative effect. There have also been studies showing that readers to not process generic masculinum as referring to both genders.

Other solutions

Looking at your disclaimer, the generic femininum seems like an equally good solution. It doesn't disturb text flow, and it can be understood as referring to both genders. And if your professor actually does have a problem with the generic masculinum, it might be a good solution that makes you both happy.

And as you didn't mention it, there is always the gendergap (Student_innen), gender star (Student*innen) or binne-i (StudentInnen). They may be less disturbing to your reading flow than naming both forms separately (Studenten und Studentinnen).

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    "the generic femininum (...) can be understood as referring to both genders." [citation needed] Interesting link to the other studies concerning the more commonplace variants, though. – O. R. Mapper Aug 29 '16 at 19:48
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    @O.R.Mapper Well, that's what makes it generic; it's the same argument as with the generic masculinum (in my opinion it's a weak argument in either case), but it does avoid naming both forms, and may be a good compromise (OP still has the text flow they prefer, and the assumed professor is happy as women aren't excluded). OP could also include a disclaimer to highlight it, as the generic femininum isn't used that often. – tim Aug 29 '16 at 19:51
  • Ok, I see. In that case, personally, I'd probably rather lean towards the generic neutrum, but this probably just underlines how undecided German speakers are about the "correct" way to deal with gender-specific language. – O. R. Mapper Aug 29 '16 at 20:16
  • "Either the people reading your thesis are already fine with the generic masculinum - in which case you don't need a disclaimer - or they are not." - Exactly! – Max Sep 2 '16 at 11:34
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A common approach is to alternate genders each chapter. Chapter 1 would default to female-specific terms. Chapter 2 would default to male-specific terms. Etc.

You could explain why you choose to not include both genders at every mention, and that you've chosen this alternative.

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    Which one do you start with? – O. R. Mapper Aug 29 '16 at 18:08
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    @O.R.Mapper Toss a coin? And include the result of the coin toss in the introduction? – Patricia Shanahan Aug 29 '16 at 18:14
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    Depends on the work. I flip a coin. And yeah, including the result of the coin toss puts a light-hearted spin on the whole thing: i.e. it's not such a big deal. – user50094 Aug 29 '16 at 18:17
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    You can also do this at a finer granularity, e.g., every section, every paragraph, every example. Whatever makes most sense for your prose. – jakebeal Aug 29 '16 at 20:25
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    At some point, you all have to stop and say, "This is not worth it. This is not helping gender-equality but rather obsessing about political witch-hunts." The OP should simply add a short footnote if he wishes, and leave it at that. Forget the coin toss, the alternations, etc. – user296844 Sep 3 '16 at 22:20
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The preface to the book

Ludewig, J., Lichter, H.: Software Engineering - Grundlage, Menschen, Prozesse, Techniken. dpunkt Verlag, 2007.

can serve as an example. On pages vii and viii, it contains a section dealing with the issues, from which I'd like to cite the most important parts:

Rollenbezeichnungen

Auch in diesem Buch bleibt das Problem ungelöst, eine befriedigende Form der Rollenbezeichnungen zu finden, die nicht suggeriert, dass die Person in dieser Rolle ein männliches (oder weibliches) Wesen ist. (...) Wir gehen den üblichen Weg, alle Rollenbezeichnungen in ihrer Grundform zu verwenden, und das heißt, da wir nicht von Hebammen und Krankenschwestern reden, in ihrer männlichen Form. Es dürfte überflüssig sein, darauf hinzuweisen, dass es nach unserer Kenntnis keine einzige Rolle auf dem Gebiet des Software Engineerings gibt, die vorzugsweise oder ausschließlich mit Männern oder mit Frauen besetzt sein sollte. (...)

In English:

Role Designations

The issue of finding a satisfactory form of role designations, which do not suggest that a person occupying a role is a male (or a female) being, remains unsolved here, like in other books. (...) We take the conventional route of using the basic form for all role designations. As we are not talking about midwives and nurses1, this means, in their male form. It is probably unnecessary to point out that, to our knowledge, not a single role in the area of software engineering should preferably, or exclusively, be occupied by men or by women. (...)

1: Remark by translator: A common German word for nurse, Krankenschwester (literally: sister of/for the sick) suggests a female, comparably to the term midwife.  

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    "Grundform" (basic form) is of course just what's at stake. A proponent of gender neutral language would deny that the male version should count as the basic form. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 31 '16 at 13:59
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    Interestingly (and tangentially), ‘midwife’ is a gender-neutral term in english, and cognate to ‘mit-weib’ (or something like that); that is, it's the person who's professionally with the woman giving birth. In older texts, you occasionally see the term ‘man-midwife’. – Norman Gray Aug 31 '16 at 21:59
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    @henning: I suppose that depends a bit on what you consider a "basic form" - but in general (actually, I cannot think of any counterexamples right now, even though they might exist), the "basic form" is more or less the "root" of a word, without any added prefixes or suffixes. At least based upon that convention, it would be rather hard to argue that a form with the suffix -in is the base for a form that does not feature that suffix. – theboy Sep 1 '16 at 17:00
  • I've fought with Ludewig on this topic over a beer :) When I teach Software Engineering in German, I use the generic femininum, except for "Arzthelfer" and "Sekretär", words that are generally given as feminine, despite the "generic" masculinum. – Debora Weber-Wulff Oct 27 '16 at 22:04
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A simple solution is to just use female terms throughout. Since male-default is so often used, switching everywhere will give you:

  • easier to read flow of text.
  • only offend people who want to be offended, and would probably have found a way anyway regardless of what option you chose.
  • additionally, you won't have to worry about switching back and forth (which can be annoying, especially in editing if you move sections around).

You might not even need a preface, especially if you are not female. Using female terms throughout a text is becoming common enough (though still pretty uncommon) that it's unlikely to cause real offence.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Aug 31 '16 at 17:08
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This should really be a comment, but it's far to long to be a comment, so meh.

Strictly speaking, the term "gendered nouns" doesn't mean what a lot of people think it means, specifically, sexual gender. All the romance languages that derive from Latin have or had Noun Classes where essentially all nouns fall into one of a number of categories - typically two or three.

The idea, for English speakers who are not familiar, is quite simple. If I want to write/say something like "I brought a chair, a cup, and a sofa from Ikea, but then I dropped it.", you have no idea which of the three "it" is.

Along comes noun classes to the rescue. Lets arbitrarily assign each object a class, say 1 2 and 3 to chair/cup/sofa respectively (as they are in German), and have the pronouns itx, ity and itz for each class. Now you can say --"but then I dropped ity.", and it's very clear which object was dropped. The cup.

This system helps make language more reliable, however, redundancy always comes at a cost. The cost here being that the more classes you have the more difficult it becomes to remember which class objects belong to. Certainly, it is a case of diminishing returns. Many languages therefore dropped their 3rd class and just stick with 2. Some languages like modern English dropped all 3 and just have 1 (or none, depending on how you look at it). Linguistic experts often attribute this to the invasion of the Vikings into the British Isles, where Old English and Old Norse both had the same number of noun classes, but the classes had different nouns in them, and so the benefits of noun classes were nullified and actually hindered communication, so they slowly lost popularity.

But the number of noun-classes is not at all as important as what nouns you put into what class, and here lies the paradox. If you put nouns that are similar in form or function into the same class, it will be easier to remember which class they all belong to, however, the probability of sentences where multiple nouns all have the same class increases, and the utility of noun class for clarity decreases. If knife, fork and spoon all had the same class, then classification of these nouns is kind of useless in any given sentence, which is why that is VERY rarely the case in any language that uses noun classes. However, the more divergent or random the assigning of nouns to classes is, the harder it becomes to remember an individual noun's class.

As for 'men' and 'women', well they are also nouns, so they also need a class. Unfortunately, this is where the confusion about 'gender' springs from. The fork, in German, is not female. It is simply in the same class as female. Why would anyone think our ancestors were so illogical as to assign sex to inanimate objects? They just gave their classes the names of the two big classes seen in nature - men, women, and if you need a 3rd class, neither.


None of the above has absolutely anything to do with the OPs problem. The only reason I mention it all is to draw a line under the issue of noun class - something English does not have - with the true issue in the OP; the use of collective nouns for a profession or activity that was almost entirely done by one gender, now being done by the other gender and a new word being coined to highlight the fact that the person described is not of the typical gender, as well as the issue of what to do when gender is ambiguous. This is a phenomena that does still occur in English and is part of an on-going debate in English-speaking communities too. In short, this is not a German-specific issue at all.

The obvious example is Actor. An actor was once a profession only men were allowed to perform. When women started performing, the term Actress was coined to raise awareness that an unusual gender was performing the role. But what if you want to refer to the profession without consideration to the sex of the performer? Is it Actor or Actress? Is assuming one over the other sexist?

Modern society no longer finds this gender distinction to be relevant or fair, and so all gendered collectives are falling out of fashion. Just exactly how this is done depends very much on the activity in question, the people involved, what gender was traditionally the dominant one, etc. And of course, it's a bumpy process. The basic outcomes ordered by how stable they are in society are:

  1. A new term is coined to highlight the unusual gender. Businesswoman. Servicewoman. Actress. Priestess. If the default gender was traditionally female, male versions are unlikely to stick, for example 'murse' for male nurse, 'mid-husband' for male midwife, 'manny' for male nanny, as they are often (unfairly) seen as derogatory.

  2. One of the two collective nouns becomes the default. Actor. Nurse. Model. More stable than segregation method above, but still not that stable, else this entire thread wouldn't exist.

  3. An entirely new construct is used for both genders simultaneously and/or neither gender, but always with no gender having more of a claim to the term than the other. stay-at-home-mum, stay-at-home-dad, stay-at-home-parent, care-giver, etc.

Going back to the OP's question, if you were to go with the Studentinnen und Studenten option then you're basically opting for the level 1 solution. To forcibly use one over the other and insist that you are not using it in a sex-specific way, as was your quite sensible solution, would be to opt for a level 2 solution. To entirely change your personal vocabulary to use words which imply 'gender unknown or no gender' would be level 3, allowing you to use the gendered nouns when needed.... but i'm told by the numerous Germans sitting around me that making up new words is not something people like to do here. Thanks to Shakespeare this is far less the case in English-speaking communities where seemingly anyone can conjure up a new word if it's catchy enough. I suspect in the years to come, and as languages mix more than ever before, there will be a significant rise in 'new words' in German... however unpopular that may seem at first.

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    As you noted, this is a comment and not an answer. – jakebeal Aug 30 '16 at 18:54
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    "i'm told by the numerous Germans sitting around me that making up new words is not something people like to do here" - I'm not sure that's the main sentiment at work here. The more specific statement I have heard (not least with respect to exactly this topic) is that having newly made-up words prescribed by others, in what is perceived as a top-down-way, rather than letting language evolve over the course of decades, is not something people like. Of course, leaving aside the issue mentioned elsewhere around here that a new grammatical gender might require its own custom declension. – O. R. Mapper Aug 30 '16 at 19:40
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    Sorry O.R. Mapper, you're right, and I don't for a second want to pretend that I really understand why German works as it does and how it has evolved. I am still learning your language and it's a slow process for me, and obviously there's a lot more history and culture behind it than just the sounds I memorise. In fact, the more I learn it the more i'm surprised it's not the linga franca of science, since you can be very precise in German. This is probably related to the fact that smaller new words aren't just created whenever someone feels too lazy to be precise. I'm looking at you jeggings. – Wetlab Walter Aug 31 '16 at 14:05
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    The entire question seems like a bike shed problem to me. This is the only answer that actually ask why the question may need to be asked. – grochmal Sep 1 '16 at 0:16
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    It's an oversimplification to say that noun classes arise from or are primarily for the kinds of disambiguations you mention. (For one thing, that sort of sentence is not that common; adding an entire grammatical feature for it is odd.) For Indo-European languages in particular (including German and English), the original distinction was probably semantic, between animate and inanimate, possibly reinforced by an ergative-absolutive structure. The feminine noun class probably arose from overgeneralizing a feminizing suffix *-ih2. Of course, this has nothing to do with gender-neutral writing. – anomaly Sep 1 '16 at 3:07
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You already got long and good treaties about gender neutrality in Germany, so let me go on a bit of a tangent.

Don't explain, don't complain

General discourse: Never write any sort of disclaimer. You are doing nothing wrong (at least in the eyes of a substantial amount of Germans). If you feel that you have to explain your actions, you can always either chose to not explain ("their fault if they don't get it") or to act differently ("it's wrong, so I will not do it"). Doing it wrong and then trying to explain it away is never good. It's like saying "I do not want to sound rude, but ...insert rude stuff here...". Don't do that. Either be rude and man (sic!) up to it, or do not be rude.

But unfortunately, you are not asking "should I write gender-neutral or not", or "should I include a disclaimer", so the previous would not be a good answer.

So, to answer at least one of your subquestions:

If not, how can I go about not using gender-neutral language without having it possibly be regarded as sexism or influence my grade?

Pick your side

Pick the variant that you want to pick, put a little sidenote somewhere which makes your stance on the topic clear, and be done with it. You are not committing a crime here, you are just chosing a style.

When you are an established writer, you can do it by quoting some funny Goethe poem or thinking of a tongue-in-cheek paragraph; in a bachelor thesis, where you are in a rather junior position, you likely want to keep it short and to the point ("in this thesis, the gender of any term is not related to the gender of persons but is solely used in the most readable fashion" / "Die Verwendung des Maskulinum/Femininums in diesem Werk steht nicht in Zusammenhang mit dem Geschlecht von Personen, sondern dient ausschließlich dazu, die Lesbarkeit des Textes zu steigern."). Don't make it stand out, put it in a footnote at the first occurence of a non-neutral word.

As you found out, gender neutrality is a contested field, so you cannot please everybody, anyways. Using one of the schemes mentioned elsewhere is just effort which is not even appreciated by half of your readers - waste of time on their end as well as yours; and it distracts from the actual content of your work.

Or pick their side

Since your thesis will quite likely be read by exactly one person - the one that grades it, the most important part of your question is probably:

without ... influence my grade

That is a totally different question that has nothing to do with gender-neutrality disclaimers. If you mainly want to make sure that your grade is as high as it can get, then go find out what exactly the person that grades your paper wants (ask them directly), stop fussing about it, and do what they say.

This argument may sound overly pessimistic/defeatist, but the same will be true if you later write papers that you want to have published - you better write them in the way the publisher expects them to instead of disclaiming your own preferences. As you seemingly do not care that much yourself anyways (or you would not lower yourself to add a disclaimer, in the first place), it's not like you are "giving in" to a morally bad thing, or something like that.

  • I think I disagree with this, on the basis that "their fault if they don't get it" is a questionable stance when writing a text that is primarily meant to transfer information. If "they don't get it" because there are various interpretations around (even if some of them could be labeled "incorrect"), wouldn't it be the most obvious course of action to explain which interpretation is going to be used in the text? – O. R. Mapper Aug 31 '16 at 19:33
  • Read again, there are multiple choices, not just that one. – AnoE Aug 31 '16 at 21:50

protected by eykanal Aug 30 '16 at 17:02

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